Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why Iran Keeps Quoting George H.W. Bush

As the past president found out, getting Iran to negotiate is hard—especially when it uses your own words against you.

U.S. President George H.W. Bush speaks at a press conference in Munich on July 8, 1992.
U.S. President George H.W. Bush speaks at a press conference in Munich on July 8, 1992.
U.S. President George H.W. Bush speaks at a press conference in Munich on July 8, 1992. Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president raised hopes that the United States and Iran could make an immediate breakthrough on reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But restoring the deal is proving harder than it may look, and the two sides are at an impasse. Washington, which withdrew from the accord in 2018, is calling on Tehran to enter talks over restoring compliance with the deal and addressing other areas of concern. Tehran rejected an initial offer to talk. On Thursday, it repeated its demand that Washington must relieve sanctions first.

To make their point, Iranian officials have been repeating a specific phrase: “Goodwill begets goodwill.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used the phrase in a January article in Foreign Affairs and has repeated variations of it since. Other senior officials have echoed him.

For many Western policymakers, Iran’s use of this expression may be unremarkable. But in the annals of U.S.-Iranian history, the phrase—coined by former U.S. President George H.W. Bush—has specific resonance. Not only is Iran’s top diplomat consciously quoting a former U.S. president, he is harkening back to a misunderstood and ultimately failed diplomatic gambit from 30 years ago. Iran’s invocation of the phrase calls for a closer look at what “goodwill begets goodwill” meant as a diplomatic strategy, why it failed, and how it could apply to the current circumstances.

Joe Biden’s election as U.S. president raised hopes that the United States and Iran could make an immediate breakthrough on reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). But restoring the deal is proving harder than it may look, and the two sides are at an impasse. Washington, which withdrew from the accord in 2018, is calling on Tehran to enter talks over restoring compliance with the deal and addressing other areas of concern. Tehran rejected an initial offer to talk. On Thursday, it repeated its demand that Washington must relieve sanctions first.

To make their point, Iranian officials have been repeating a specific phrase: “Goodwill begets goodwill.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used the phrase in a January article in Foreign Affairs and has repeated variations of it since. Other senior officials have echoed him.

For many Western policymakers, Iran’s use of this expression may be unremarkable. But in the annals of U.S.-Iranian history, the phrase—coined by former U.S. President George H.W. Bush—has specific resonance. Not only is Iran’s top diplomat consciously quoting a former U.S. president, he is harkening back to a misunderstood and ultimately failed diplomatic gambit from 30 years ago. Iran’s invocation of the phrase calls for a closer look at what “goodwill begets goodwill” meant as a diplomatic strategy, why it failed, and how it could apply to the current circumstances.

When Bush entered office in January 1989, Iran was low on his policy agenda. Iran’s nuclear program was nascent, its regional influence limited, and it was reeling from a devastating eight-year war with Iraq. But Bush was committed to freeing U.S. citizens held hostage in Lebanon, and the administration believed that Iran held influence over the militia groups that orchestrated the kidnappings. So he asked Tehran for help.

In his inaugural address, Bush referenced U.S. citizens held abroad by saying: “Assistance can be shown here and will be long remembered. Goodwill begets goodwill.” Bush wanted Iran to take the first step in easing tension between the two countries, after which the United States would address unspecified Iranian concerns in exchange. Bush added, “good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on.”

The George H.W. Bush administration asked the United Nations to convey the message privately to Iran as well, and it issued a classified policy directive instructing the administration to “be prepared for a normal relationship with Iran.” To indicate his seriousness, Bush told the Omani government, a frequent interlocutor with Iran, that releasing the hostages was the essential prerequisite for improved relations with Tehran.

The Iranian president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, accepted the offer, concluding it was worth the effort to remove an irritant in relations with Washington. But it took time—and cash—for him to deliver. Over the course of the next three years, eight U.S. citizens held hostage were freed, and the bodies of two others who died or were killed in custody were returned; the final hostages were freed in December 1991. The U.N. special envoy, the indefatigable Giandomenico Picco, explicitly credited Tehran and Rafsanjani for facilitating the releases. Then-young Iranian diplomat Zarif was closely involved as well. Bush repeatedly thanked Iran for its assistance.

Even today, some analysts contend that Bush did nothing in exchange for Iran’s efforts.

Even today, some analysts contend that Bush did nothing in exchange for Iran’s efforts. That is incorrect. The United States provided several “goodwill” measures in 1990 and 1991. It lifted a ban on U.S. companies importing Iranian oil, resolved an outstanding claim for undelivered military equipment at The Hague, and supported the United Nations’ issuance of a final report blaming Iraq for triggering the Iran-Iraq War. The United States was not purely motivated by reciprocating for the hostages’ release; Washington also sought to persuade Iran to play a productive role in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, which it did.

At the time, Washington had no direct diplomatic channels with Tehran. Former Secretary of State James Baker told me the United States tried to open up talks, but Tehran declined. Nevertheless, Washington decided that Tehran expected more “goodwill,” and it initiated a secret policy review in late 1991 or early 1992 to decide how to move forward.

Yet, by April 1992, Washington decided that Iran was becoming more, not less, dangerous and was not deserving of additional “goodwill” measures.

In particular, the White House was concerned by Iran’s links to the assassination of former Iranian Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar in France and a devastating truck bombing at the Israeli Embassy in Argentina. More alarmingly, Iran had accelerated the pace of its attempted acquisitions of nuclear material and technology from Argentina, China, Germany, India, and Russia. A senior Iranian official floated the possibility that all Muslim nations should develop nuclear weapons. The CIA issued a public assessment that “Tehran is seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon capability,” although it acknowledged the threat was many years away.

For the George H.W. Bush administration, despite Iran’s help with the hostages, the situation had fundamentally changed. For Tehran, the United States had betrayed its word, ruining a potential opening.

Today, Tehran is apparently leaning on this episode to send a clear message that Washington will have to take the first step, just as Bush indicated Iran would have to do decades ago. Yet, it is worth remembering that, as with most opening demands, it will probably prove flexible over time. Indeed, after insisting this was the “definitive” approach, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dropped his demand in subsequent comments.

The “goodwill begets goodwill” episode also contains additional lessons that Iran may not have intended to send.

First, it demonstrated that uncoordinated, positive measures do not form the basis of a sustainable relationship. Tehran may want the United States to return to the JCPOA first or at least make an initial gesture. But outside of negotiations or at least clear communication, the impact of unilateral goodwill measures can be extremely limited and ripe for misperception.

As U.S. officials consider whether to offer Iran some incentives to return to negotiations, they should keep in mind the risks as well as the benefits of such an approach, especially regarding how Iranian officials may interpret such an outreach. A move that is too tepid may be viewed as insulting or not a goodwill gesture at all. In an interview Khamenei’s website, Ali Larijani, the former speaker of Parliament, appeared to reference such a situation, warning Washington against trying to “deceive Iran with a chocolate.” Last week, another senior Iranian official used a similar metaphor in the Financial Times, warning Washington that smaller moves would be akin to giving Tehran “a candy.”

On the other hand, a move that is too generous may undermine the United States’ negotiating position or trigger significant domestic backlash. That does not mean that no unilateral outreach is warranted—only that caution is needed. Smaller measures, carefully crafted and targeted, could still be worthwhile—but only if they are intended to facilitate a formal dialogue, not replace it.

Second, the “goodwill begets goodwill” experience underscores that a sustainable de-escalation between Washington and Tehran cannot be pursued simply by focusing on the immediate issue at hand, whether that be hostages in the 1990s or the nuclear issue today. This underscores the importance of the Biden administration securing from Iran, before reentering the nuclear deal, a commitment to not only negotiate expanding the agreement’s scope but to discuss the full range of Iranian activities the United States finds problematic. If not, the episode in the 1990s shows that other issues will intrude, invited or not. And, once again, goodwill would not beget goodwill.

Henry Rome is the senior Iran analyst at Eurasia Group, the global political risk research and consulting firm.

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